Q&A | Turning up the heat with Tessa Bailey

Dubbed the 'Michelangelo of dirty talk', the author of spicy romance novels knows her way around a sex scene or two

07 August 2023 - 13:24
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Tessa Bailey - queen of dirty talk.
Tessa Bailey - queen of dirty talk.
Image: Nisha Ver Halen

Unfortunately Yours

Tessa Bailey, HarperCollins

4 stars

Fifty Shades is so 10 years ago. Now it's spicy romances with BookTok driving the sales. These novels have their own hashtag on the social app called #Spicytok and users mark them with chilli emojis to indicate the level of heat/erotica one can expect. 

Tessa Bailey’s novels need quite a few dozen chilli emojis to convey how steamy they are. Entertainment Weekly dubbed her the “Michelangelo of dirty talk”. And there's a lot of it in her books. Especially her latest, called Unfortunately Yours. The elevator pitch describes it perfectly: “A down-on-her-luck Napa heiress suggests a mutually beneficial marriage of convenience to a man she can't stand ... only to discover there's a fine line between love and hate.” There’s wine and oh so much sex. The author knows what she is doing.

We asked her a few questions:

Unfortunately Yours employs the enemy to lover romance trope. Is this one of your favourite romance genres to write, and if so why?

Enemies to lovers is definitely a favourite trope to write, but I need to write the story in a specific way to make it fulfilling for me. Part of the fantasy of a romance novel is that there is nothing that can stop the hero from falling in love with the heroine — it’s an instant inevitability in my books. Because of that, I like to make it clear that, despite their arguing or differences, he has loved her all along.

'Unfortunately Yours' by Tessa Bailey.
'Unfortunately Yours' by Tessa Bailey.
Image: Supplied

Tell us more about the origins of the story? How did these two characters emerge?

We meet Natalie in book one of the series, Secretly Yours, and she is the heroine I adore — strong and independent with a vulnerable streak a mile wide. I needed to give her a partner who would keep her on her toes, while making her feel valued and worth fighting for. August was perfect. He is stubborn, but also honest with his feelings, so he gives Natalie the verbal affirmations she needs to hear — and in the past has not been given by her family.

Being in South Africa, we are proud of our renowned winelands. Why did you choose the setting of the vineyards in Napa Valley, California?

Winemaking is romantic in itself because it’s a tradition where the result makes people happy, brings them together. It involves the earth and dedication and sunshine and soil. It’s so eternal and enduring, a lot like love. To me, the romance almost came built-in.

What made you start writing and how do you feel now that you are a celebrated romance author?

I started writing romance after having my child because I wanted to accomplish something that would make her proud of me and also give her opportunities one day. I never thought I would succeed in the way I have. Having people buy my books and recognise my name seems like a dream sometimes — like it’s happening to someone else. There is a lot of worry and fear of disappointing people involved, so maybe I don’t let myself enjoy it so much to protect my own feelings.

What romance genre would you not tackle? 

Historical romance because it makes me sad to read about people and places that no longer exist (in the same manner they are written). It leaves me with a melancholic feeling at the end. But I respect the love and research that many authors put into writing it and there are many great historical novels out there.

Would you try writing something besides romance novels? 

No. Never. I write about romance because it’s the only part of movies, TV shows and books that has ever made me feel buoyant, hopeful and safe. It’s a privilege that I get to make readers feel that way while reading my books and I never want to stop being that refuge for them.

Do you feel your readers expect steamy sex scenes? Is there any pressure or do you challenge yourself with every novel to be different? 

Readers do expect sex scenes when they read my books. It’s how I’ve always chosen to tell the story — being there for every aspect of the budding relationship, including the physical parts. There is always emotional progress made between the characters during my sex scenes and they’re a vital part of my stories. I don’t feel pressure to write each sex scene differently because after 10 years I know the characters are going to take care of that for me. Each combination of characters is different and that translates during the spicy interludes.

Writing sex scenes can be difficult. Do you map out what kind of sexual relationship the two characters have? Do you research different types of sexual experiences? 

I don’t always map it out beforehand. Depending on the storyline and each character’s motivations or past experiences, I might have some idea how I want them to be in the bedroom. But when I reach those scenes, I’m usually surprised by the dynamic. I’ve definitely done research in the past, mostly about third base and the different techniques involved, but most of it comes from my own filthy mind.

There is criticism that a few romance authors write about destructive relationships in a positive light, especially the sex scenes. How do you know where to draw the line with writing male or female characters so they don't become aggressive and toxic?

Romance is a safe place to explore sexual interests/fantasies that we wouldn’t necessarily want to explore in real life. Romance readers are smart and they understand the difference between fiction and reality. In real life, I don’t want to be kidnapped by a mafia kingpin, but you can bet I want to read about it and imagine him having his way with me. I believe we should give readers more credit when it comes to trusting their judgment and ability to decipher between fantasy and the world around them. In my writing, as long as both characters are consenting and enjoying themselves, they should explore their physical relationship however they choose. But consent is non-negotiable.

What can we expect next? 

A lot. I have a spicy Christmas romcom called Wreck the Halls releasing later this year, and next year I’m going to kick off a new sports series which I’m having a lot of fun writing.

Click here to buy this book.

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